Misinterpreting Emerson: A Meditation on Consistency, the Constitution, and American Exceptionalism

When I first started working as a disability examiner for Social Security, we had no desktop computers, just Wang terminals; nor could we communicate via email, just intraoffice messaging whose default was “reply all.” Hence, I established a wide reputation for pedantry early on. The topic was one on which I have often pontificated in the intervening thirty-plus years. One of the system administrators reached outside his bailiwick and sent the following message to everyone at Disability Determination Services; I still don’t know if it was meant as a challenge or a request for information:

Who said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”?

And here was the presumptuous reply of the newly-trained disability specialist who got herself fired a few years later for her fairly consistent audacity over time:

No one. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” [emphasis mine]. Those are two very different ideas.

I confess that I was so ready with the retort because a high school classmate had burned Emerson’s words onto my brain when she asked Mr. Crawford, our teacher in freshman accelerated English, “What does Emerson mean when he says that consistency is the hemoglobin of little minds?” Now that I think of her question more carefully, I realize that her howler actually contains an astute metaphor of its own. But I digress. Actually, I haven’t even begun the topic from which this extended rabbit trail would be a potential digression! So I’ll proceed apace. Continue reading

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Wilmer and Friends . . . Old Friends

The following conversation occurred late on a summer afternoon about fifteen years ago at a house on the shores of Lake Gaston, North Carolina. The participants were a guileless pre-pubescent girl named Victoria and her two much older auditors, Vicki and Worth:

Victoria: There’s a boy in my class who can’t speak any English at all.
Worth: What language does he speak?
Victoria: Spanish. I’m trying to help him learn English.  
Worth: How do you do that?
Victoria: Well, I show him something like a book or a pencil and then say the word to him and ask him to say it back to me. Sometimes I even write the words down for him.
Vicki: Does he ever tell you how to say the words in Spanish?
Victoria: Yes. He told me libro for book and lápiz for pencil. He wrote them down for me too, but I don’t  remember how to spell them.
Worth: Does it seem to be helping him?
Victoria: No, he really can’t remember his English at all. Everyone in his family speaks Spanish, so they can’t help him at home, and all his other friends speak Spanish too. And everyone else laughs at him because he can’t understand what they say.
Vicki: Oh, that’s too bad. What’s his name?
Victoria: Wilmer.

Yes, Wilmer. . . . WILMER.  Continue reading

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Waiting Room

Of the many words of Just(e) Words, some have become leitmotivs intertwining the preoccupations of my mind with the events in my life. In fact, I find comfort in the notion that body and soul are so firmly bound together and that the bond can be discovered and expressed in words, the substance of my being.

Nowhere has this phenomenon become so apparent as with the recurrent theme of waiting. And what a strange confluence it represents. I remember well the words of Hermann Hesse’s eponymous Siddhartha, who responded when asked what he could do, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” I knew even as a college student and fledgling philosopher that while thinking and fasting came easy to me, I could not wait. But now waiting has become my leitmotiv. Owing not only to my monthlong series of posts during that season of waiting in the liturgical year 2018, but also to my passion for those pre-Christmas weeks of quiet and contemplation, Advent is the most used tag word on the entire blog. And now I find that another season of waiting has arrived, unexpected as a lightning strike on a clear and moonlit night. And as I contemplate the implications of this unforeseen intrusion, I realize that I have already expressed its twin implications in my writings. Continue reading

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Fatty, Fatty, Two by Four

Next to last person seated in the front row, proudly wearing my Brownie uniform, I was at 9 years old already one of the fat girls in my third-grade class at Noftsger Hill School in Globe, Arizona.

A fat child
For the illumination of those who didn’t bear the sting of the taunt that inspired my title, let me quote:

Fatty, fatty, two by four,
Couldn’t get through the bathroom door,
So she did it on the floor,
Licked it up and did some more.

Six decades of introspection have led me to the firm conclusion that the entire course of my life has been determined by being the brunt of those words–and others that cut just as deep. In high school band, a trombone player called me a “pregnant gazelle” when I tripped and fell on one of the risers in the band hall. (Yes, I remember his name: Gary Ellsworth. These tidbits one does not forget easily.) I once overheard a beloved aunt from Oklahoma tell my mother, “You must get tired of having people tell you all the time, ‘Your girls are so FAT.'” At some point in my adolescence, my own father said I was “a fat sow who does nothing but lay [sic] around and read all day.” Sadly, my memory of one of the other fat girls in my class was recently stirred when I read her obituary in the online version of our hometown newspaper, the Arizona Silver Belt. Virginia Garcia is the first girl in the first row in the picture above. Her family nickname, which spilled over to the playground, was Porky. Continue reading

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Everything Calm on the Occidental Battlefield: Or, Plagiarism 101

Pictured is the edition used for this review

What follows is a literary analysis I received at the end of the spring semester in one of my English 112 classes. My first clue that something was amiss was the title in the first sentence–and the fact that it changed by the end 0f the same paragraph. I began to realize just how amiss when I read such phrases as “an important hotspot” and “passage tickets and a bull battle” (!).

My first thought was that the student had found an essay online and paraphrased it, thesaurus in hand, by maintaining the same structure as the original but replacing every few words with a not-always-accurate synonym. With a quick Google search, I found the source. However, as I wrote the original words above the new ones on my student’s paper, I realized that he surely couldn’t have created such howlers as “spear corporal” for lance corporal or “the supply route of his arm” for the artery of his arm.

I was right. Plagiarism has now become an insidious multi-step, guided process: (1) Find an essay you like; (2) Copy and paste the entire essay onto paraphrasing-tool.com; (3) Voilà! Within 4 seconds, you will have a brand-new essay! (4) And to finish with a flourish, I quote, “All done? Proofread your final text product with Proofreading Tool (also free).”

I have reprinted below the student’s essay, followed by the original, along with a link to the latter. I invite you to compare these two documents–a process that would be jolly good entertainment if it weren’t predicated upon such a bleak view of the state of education in the 21st century. This is indeed where we have come.

Continue reading

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10,000 Steps (and Photos?)

Jane magnolias in glorious bloom on the FTCC campus (March 13)

Almost three months have passed since I last posted here–by far the longest dry spell since I started writing in 2016. Not accidentally, this hiatus coincides with my newly rediscovered passion for fitness. Last May, my family doctor told me that at 6.6%, my hemoglobin A1c level had crossed the threshold for diabetes–but that I could reverse the diagnosis through diet and exercise. She sent me to a nutritionist, whose dietary advice I have followed meticulously for over 9 months, and by November, my labs were mostly on the normal range. In January, the Apple Watch inspired me to start walking. I also joined the YMCA and signed up for an aerobics class at school (instructors can take one free class each semester). To date, I have lost 136 pounds, built some heretofore untried muscles, and begun slowly building a new wardrobe. Continue reading

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“They Shall Not Grow Old”: See it if you can!

For the Fallen
By Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain. Continue reading

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Fruition: 2018

As I began to ponder the year soon coming to a close, it seemed necessary and fitting that I end the longest hiatus of my blog-writing career with a brief narration of the project–now complete–that has consumed my life for the last four years. During that time, I have focused much of my attention on the effort to commemorate, both personally and professionally, the centenary of World War I. Not coincidentally, I last posted here on November 11, one hundred years after the Armistice ending the ghastly war that gave us the map, the context, and even the vocabulary by which we still understand the ensuing century. As that project came to its logical conclusion during those frenzied days of early November, I realized that I could take the time to breathe, to collect my energies, and to move onto as-yet undetermined paths. So today, I am taking the opportunity to review this project as it came to fruition in 2018–focusing primarily on the last few events that provided me with a sense of fulfillment like no other. Continue reading

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The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song

Published below is the text of a talk I will give tomorrow to commemorate the Armistice centenary as part of a series of events entitled “FTCC Remembers World War I: 1914-1918.”

“Death is the mother of beauty,” wrote Wallace Stevens, one of the few poets of the Lost Generation who did not actually serve in World War I. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” wrote John Keats 100 years earlier. These twin ideas are a premise—and a promise—I have had ample opportunities to test over the last three years in my preparations for this very moment. And now we gathered here in this auditorium have another such opportunity: This bugle, so hauntingly played by FTCC student Mynia Hughes, served in the trenches of World War I. Its dents—the scars of battle—cause it to be slightly and poignantly out of tune. Yes, the plaintive notes of “Taps” on that bugle are beautiful to me. So are the poppies whose red splendor inspired Major John McCrae to write the famous “In Flanders Fields” a mere thousand days before he died of pneumonia and meningitis while serving at a Canadian field hospital in France. The poor soil of Flanders was richly fertilized by the nitrogen from explosives, the lime from demolished buildings, and the blood and bones of soldiers who gave their lives there, creating a blanket of scarlet over no-man’s land.  Continue reading

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One Doomed Youth–and 17 Million More

From July to November 1917, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was a shell-shocked second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, under the care of W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital. There, he became close friends with Siegfried Sassoon, who became his poetic mentor and helped him revise the following poem, one of his most memorable: Continue reading

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